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The Skill System
As you gain levels you are given skill points which you may spend in a variety
of ways, and which can result in significant differences between two characters
that would otherwise be quite similar. Like character creation, it's not
hard to go wrong and give yourself some serious disadvantages. You can switch
skill points around at a later date, but big changes are prohibitively expensive.
To train your skills you must find an appropriate trainer. Given all the
professions in the game, and the fact that not all cities have a complete
set of trainers, or trainers of a high enough level, characters are forced
to glean information from other players about where their trainer is and
run a virtual marathon or two.
In the early stages of the game, the penalty for dying is quite mild. You
respawn in your home city and must make the long jog back to where the action
is. Once you graduate off newbie island, however, the cost of dying goes
up substantially. From this point on, you lose experience, your equipment
takes damage which must be repaired, and the contents of your inventory,
including gold, is left on your corpse. Your corpse can be looted by anyone,
so prepare yourself for some EverQuest-like corpse runs.
Clearly a first level character wouldn't last long in the lawless world of
guild conflict, especially considering that there are no restrictions whatsoever
on who may attack who in Shadowbane. So instead of starting you out in such
a potentially hostile environment, you begin by putting in your time on what
has become known as "newbie island," where neither PvP nor high level characters
are allowed. After killing enough monsters to get you to about 20th level,
you graduate into one of the world's neutral cities. At this stage, if you
go beyond the confines of the safehold, all bets are off.
This does make a certain amount of sense, particularly for players that
are new to the game and need to adjust to the controls and learn the basics.
The drawback is that even experienced players creating new characters must
go through this routine, and although it could probably be accomplished in
a single long day of hardcore grinding, it gets old very fast, mainly because
the PvE aspect of the Shadowbane is, as I will now elaborate on, thoroughly
There are no quests in the game and you get no experience for killing other
players, so battling mobs is the only way to work your character up. You
will also notice that, after the first few levels, soloing is not really
an option in Shadowbane, particularly if you are hunting monsters to gain
oh-so-precious experience. This is because you get roughly the same amount
of experience whether you kill a beast by yourself or in a group, and a group
can take them out at a far greater rate than an individual. While this does
force players into a certain amount of social interaction, it's also a real
drag if you can't find a group of a similar level with room for you. Since
the maximum group size is 10, it's not unusual to see an 11th or 12th player
sitting idly near a full group waiting for a spot to open up. You'll also
notice that, at certain hours on certain servers, a suitable group is impossible
to find, leaving you with nothing to do.
Another issue with the PvE is that, unlike most MMORPGs, the areas where
the mobs spawn are an absurd distance from the cities where players spawn.
It seems like the majority of the world is just empty terrain. If you don't
know where you're going, you can run around for hours without encountering
anything but trees. Even when you do know where you're going, the long run
back to the group after dying, for example, is often a good enough reason
by itself to call it a day and log off.
Adding to the frustration of leveling in the game is the fact that, once
you are hunting in PvP land, you must be constantly looking over your shoulder
for high level characters with nothing better to do than gank you and steal
your loot. It's not unusual for a low level group to be wiped out entirely by a
high level character which they probably won't see coming and wouldn't stand
a chance against even if they did. In effect, it just makes the end game,
which is why everyone is playing, that much harder to reach.
Fighting Other Players
As you ascend to the game's higher levels, the expectation is that your attention
will shift from killing mobs to player versus player combat. At level 35
you must join a player guild or become an "errant" character that spawns
at a random location whenever you die or re-enter the world, which is not
good considering that there is nothing but a bank at most of these locations.
This means that you have no choice but to get involved in the game's politics
and the struggle for territorial domination.
It's at this point that the game starts to get interesting, but unfortunately,
like most MMORPGs, PvP encounters are typically very imbalanced. Again, there
are no level restrictions on PvP, so until you reach the games upper echelons,
you will frequently find yourself confronted with opponents you have no hope
All of this might be forgiven if the sieges were a little more engaging,
but in practice they are a rather chaotic and potentially frustrating affair.
The way challenges are made and times are arranged for the confrontation
is truly innovative. Trebuchets, mangonels, and ballista, the available siege
engines, are all immobile, but cleverly implemented.
One problem is that flying abilities are commonplace, which does tend
to detract somewhat from whole purpose of fortifications and siege engines.
Similarly, certain classes can turn invisible, teleport to anywhere on the
mini-map, and so on, making most attempts at a quasi-organised strategy futile.
Coupled with the lag that would appear to be unavoidable in clashes involving
large numbers of players, siege events can deteriorate in mass confusion
at an alarming rate.
Another concern is that building up a city is a more costly and time-consuming
proposition than tearing one down. The same is true in real life, but it
doesn't always make for a fun time in virtual reality. In Shadowbane you
never really know whether your kingdom, regardless of your best efforts,
will be nothing but ashes the next time you log on, especially if it has
been a few days. On the other hand, unlike the average MMORPG, there is a
definite sense of being able to win or lose in this game. There is nothing
stopping one guild from conquering the world, so to speak, although it's
not entirely clear what they would do after that.
The Bottom Line
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Shadowbane. I really wanted to love
this game because it tries to achieve what so many gamers like myself crave;
sieges with real consequences against human opponents - the need to, in effect,
crush or be crushed. Unfortunately, as much as I love the concept, I hate
the execution. There is hardly any aspect of Shadowbane that doesn't scream
for improvement, beginning with, of all things, the severely lacking PvE
level treadmill where you will inevitably put in the bulk of your game time,
at first for experience, then later for gold. Sadly, it would take several
articles this length to detail all the irritating problems that plague this
game. For hardcore gamers that want unrestricted PvP and meaningful territorial
conflict, it may worth the grief, especially considering that few other games
are even attempting to do this at the moment. I suspect that the majority
of casual gamers, however, won't make it through the 10 day trail, should they
choose to download it, before dismissing Shadowbane as a game in which they
can't be remotely competitive without investing excessive amounts of time.
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